Professional Practice

Sustainable Residential Design: Maximizing the Benefits of Plants

productive plants page detail
Dune Side Residence, East Hampton, New York Edmund Hollander Landscape Architect Design, P.C, New York, New York

Plants are central to a functioning global ecosystem. Plants oxygenate the atmosphere and reduce atmospheric pollutants. Reforestation in both developed and developing countries is a primary strategy for mitigating the effects of man-made greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. However, plants are not only key to the global ecosystem, but also crucial to human health.

Through "integrated site design", a comprehensive approach to sustainable building and site design, sustainable residential landscape architecture practices can not only improve water and energy efficiency, but also use plants to eliminate chemical fertilizers, produce food, restore ecosystems, and clean air. If part of a broader integrated site design, sustainable residential landscape architecture can extend the many benefits of plants.

Integrated site design is a framework for increasing the quality of the built environment, and involves maximizing existing natural systems to create productive and healthy residential environments. These types of designs leverage the many benefits of natural systems, thereby significantly cutting down the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Decreased chemical fertilizer use means homes are healthier, and ecosystems more resilient.

Homeowners can use plants to recreate healthy ecosystems in residential areas, and reduce some of the adverse effects of residential buildings on ecosystems. There are a number of ways to extend the benefits of plants: restoring native plants to residential landscapes, using plants as food sources within residences, creating wildlife habitat through the strategic use of certain plants, adding indoor plants to improve air quality and human productivity, and creating residential composting systems for efficient waste removal.

Local governments are also partnering with non-profit organizations to increase public awareness about using sustainable residential design practices to create productive plant systems.


Botanical Society of America

Center for Plant Biodiversity ResearchAustralia

Center for Plant Conservation

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

Nature Conservancy

Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (UK) 

Sustainable Sites Initiative 

U.S. Botanic Garden

U.S. Green Building Council 


"Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants," Douglas W. Tallamy. Timber Press, 2009  

"Endangered Species Acts Must Protect Plants," Native Plant Conservation Campaign

"Plant-Driven Design: Creating Gardens that Honor Plants, Place and Spirit," Scott and Lauren Springer Odgen. Timber Press, 2008  

"The Green Fuse: Using Plants to Provide Ecosystem Services," Rene Kane, SPROUT, October 2004


Biodiversity and Climate Change, UN Environment Program, World Conservation Monitoring Center

Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO)

Designing Neighborhoods for People and Wildlife, ASLA

eNature: Native Plants and Invasive Species

General Plant Biology

LEED for Homes, U.S. Green Building Council

Native Plants, Natural Landscapes 


Virtual Library of Botany / Plant Biology

Government Resources

Bayscapes for Wildlife Habitat - A Homeowner's Guide, Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, State of Virginia

Conservation Programs, Natural Resources Conservation Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture

Ecosystems and Biodiversity, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Great Plains: Native Plants and Climate Change, U.S. Global Change Research Program

Greenacres: Landscaping with Native Plants, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Colorado Plateau Native Plants Initiative, National Landscape Conservation System, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Department of the Interior

Plant Conservation AllianceBureau of Land Management, Interior Department

Plants Database, U.S. Department of Agriculture 


Dune Side Residence, East Hampton, New York
Edmund Hollander Landscape Architect Design, P.C, New York, New York

Farrar Pond Residence, Lincoln, Massachusetts
Mikyoung Kim Design, Brookline, Massachusetts

Garden/garden, Santa Monica, California
Jettscapes Landscapes

High Point, Seattle, Washington

Ma ple Hill Residence, Westwood, Massachusetts
Stephen Stim son Associates

Quartz Mountain Residence, Paradise Valley, Arizona
Steve Martino & Associates, Phoenix, Arizona

Native Plants

Native plants are crucial to restoring local ecosytems found in residential areas. These types of plants are great habitat for wildlife, and increase local biodiversity. Due to their hardiness and high resistance, native plants can effectively filter stormwater and greywater. Native plants are low maintenance and, when established, require minimal irrigation. 

In addition to their inherent environmental benefits, native plants reduce the need to use pesticides, which runoff into water supplies, and equipment that release a range of pollutants and can cumulatively affect air quality. 

Native plant benefits include:

  • Reduced environmental contamination: Native plants reduce the need to use chemical fertilizers, pesticides and other toxic lawn maintenance treatments.
  • Increased water quality: Native plants filter stormwater and greywater
  • Improved air quality: Landscape maintenance equipment produces up to five percent of ozone-forming volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) and can also emit toxic particulates. Due to the inherent low maintenance nature of native plants, the need for mowing and other conventional maintenance equipment can be eliminated.

There are a variety of native plants and selection depends on local soil type and site conditions. Many localities around the world fund registries of local native plants.

Sources: Greenacres: Green Landscaping. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency


Australia Native Plants Society

California Native Plant Society 

Florida Native Plant Society 

Regional Parks Botanic Garden

Washington Native Plant Society 

Note: Most U.S. states and countries have native plant societies. These are just a few examples.


Native Landscaping Manual: A Guide to Native Landscaping in Missouri
, Missouri Botanical Garden

Native Plant Conservation Initiative, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation

Resource-efficient Natural Landscaping: Design – Build – Maintain, Seattle Public Utilities
Your Mega Guide to Australian Native Plants, Australian Outdoor Living 


"Botany for Gardeners," Brian Capon. Timber Press, 2004

"Native Alternatives to Invasive Plants," C. Colston Burrell. Brooklyn Botanic Garden, 2006

"Native Ferns, Moss, and Grasses: From Emerald Carpet to Amber Wave, Serene and Sensuous Plants for the Garden," William Cullina. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008

"Natural Landscaping: Designing with Native Plant Communities," John Diekelmann and Robert M. Schuster. University of Wisconsin Press, 2002

"Native Trees, Shrubs, and Vines: A Guide to Using, Growing, and Propagating North American Woody Plants," William Cullina. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2002

"Roadside Use of Native Plants," Bonnie Harper-Lore and Maggie Wilson. Island Press, 2000

Government Resources

Greenacres: Green Landscaping, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Landscaping with Native Plants, Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, State of Pennsylvania

Native Plants for Conservation, Restoration and Landscaping, Department of Conservation & Recreation, State of Virginia

Prohibited Invasive Species, Palm Beach County, Florida

Colorado Plateau Native Plant Initiative, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Department of Interior,


Beach House, Amagansett, New York
Dirtworks, PC Landscape Architecture

Farrar Pont Residence, Lincoln, Massachusetts
Mikyoung Kim Design, Brookline, Massachusetts

Hilltop Residence, Seattle, Washington
Paul R. Broahurst + Associates, Seattle, Washington

Ketchum Residence, Ketchum, Idaho
Lutsko Associates

Lee Landscape, Calistoga, California
Blasen Landscape Architecture, San Anselmo, California

Lunada Bay Residence, Palos Verdes Peninsula, California
Artecho Architecture and Landscape Architecture, Venice, California

Malibu Beach House, Malibu, California
Pamela Burton & Company

Pump House, Highland Park, Texas
MESA, Dallas, Texas and D.I.R.T. Studio, Charlottesville, Virginia

San Juan Island Residence, San Juan Islands,Washington
Paul Broadhurst & Associates, Seattle, Washington

Residential Agriculture

Indoor and outdoor residential agriculture is not only visually appealing, but also productive -- edible gardens can produce food at low-cost all year. Edible gardens feature the use of trellis, pots and cages for growing fruits, vegetables, herbs.

Local governments are working with communities to expand the growth of urban and residential farming schemes, community vegetable gardens, and home-based garden plots. Many municipal and local governments offer grants and other forms of support to community groups starting productive gardens in residential areas.

In her effort to fight obesity and encourage healthier eating, U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama recently planted a White House vegetable garden to highlight the benefits of organic home-grown produce. Alice Waters, award-winning chef and owner of Chez Panisse, is also promoting the use of community and school-affiliated edible educational gardens. Her goal is increase inner-city children's exposure to healthy foods, and incorporate fresh produce into U.S. school lunch menus.


American Community Gardening Association

Edible Schoolyard

Garden Lab

Resource Centres on Urban Agriculture and Food Security

Urban Farming

Urban Harvest 

Vertical Farm Project


How to Start a Community Garden,

Urban Gardening Help 

Vegetable Gardening, Backyard Gardener

Vegetable Gardens,  


"City Bountiful: A Century of Community Gardening in America," Laura Lawson. University of California Press, 2005

"Continuous Productive Urban Landscapes: Designing Urban Agriculture for Sustainable Cities," Andre Viljoen (editor). Architectural Press, 2005

"Edible Estates: Attack on the Front Lawn," Fritz Haeg, Metropolitan Books, 2008

"Edible Gardens," Sunset Books, Oxmoor House, 2004
"Fresh Food from Small Spaces: The Square-Inch Gardener's Guide to Year-Round Growing, Fermenting and Sprouting," R.J. Ruppenthal, Chelsea Green Publishing, 2008

"Food Not Lawns: How to Turn Your Yard into a Garden and Your Neighborhood into a Community," Heather Coburn Flores, Chelsea Green Publishing, 2006

"Resilient Cities: Responding to Peak Oil and Climate Change," Peter Newman, Timothy Beatley, Heather Boyer. Island Press, 2009

Government Resources

Community Garden Organization Capacity Building Grant Program, Department of Agriculture and Markets, State of New York

Community Garden Program, Arlington, Virginia

GreenThumbNYC, Department of Parks & Recreation, New York City

Los Angeles Community Garden Council 

Urban Agriculture and Community Gardening, Alternative Farming Systems Information Center, U.S. Department of Agriculture


Curran House, San Francisco, California
Andrea Cochran Landscape Architecture

Cypress Community Garden, Vancouver, British Columbia

Edible Estate Regional Prototype Garden #3, Maplewood, New Jersey
Edible Estate, Southwark, London, England

Edible Estate Regional Prototype Garden #4, London (UK)

Edible Estates Garden #8 - Lenape Edible Estate, Manhattan, New York

Urban Farming Good Chain, Los Angeles, California
Green Living Technologies, LLC

Viet Village Urban Farm, New Orleans, Louisiana
Mossop + Michaels

White House Organic Farm Project, White House, Washington, D.C.

Residential Wildlife Habitat: Supporting bees   

Plants play a crucial role in creating wildlife habitat for a range of birds, insects, and herbivores. Bees, in particular, depend on wildlife habitat and, with increasing rates of "colony collapse disorder", are worth focus.

Bees play an important role in keeping natural habitats functioning, and provide vital ecosystem services such as pollination. Bees also provide honey and beeswax, which are used in a range of products. However, bee populations have severely declined and are now exhibiting "colony collapse disorder" in many places due to the growth of pesticides and other chemicals.

There are several simple and cost-effective ways to support bee population growth. Homeowners can invest in urban and residential beekeeping systems, as well as natural habitats that attract bees. Research shows that a number of plants specifically attract bees through their nectar and pollen. 


American Beekeeping Federation

Back Yard Beekeepers Association

Dyce Laboratory for Honey Bee Studies, Cornell University


Links, Bee Culture: The Magazine of American Beekeeping
Urban Beekeeping, The Dirt Blog, American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA)


"Bee Pollination in Agricultural Systems," Rosalind James and Theresa L. Pitts-Singer (editors). Oxford University Press, 2008

"Beekeeping for Dummies," Howland Blackiston, For Dummies, 2009 

"Ecology for Gardeners," Steven B. Carroll and Steven D. Salt. Timber Press, 2004

"Insects and Gardens: In Pursuit of a Garden Ecology," Eric Grissell and Carl Goodpasture. Timber Press, 2006

"Pollinator Conservation Handbook: A Guide to Understanding, Protecting, and Providing Habitat for Native Pollinator Insects," Matthew Shephard, Stephen L. Buchmann, Mace Vaughan, and Scott Hoffman Black. Xerxes Society, 2003

"The Beekeeper’s Handbook," Alphonse Avitabile & Diana Sammataro, Cornell University Press, 2006

Government Resources

Pollinators and Ecosystem Services, National Biological Information Infrastructure, U.S. Geological Survey


Private Residence/Landscape Restoration, Rowena, OR
Koch Landscape Architecture, Portland, OR

Indoor Plants

Indoor plant systems range from common house plants to more complex indoor-outdoor vertical wall systems. Indoor plants can dramatically improve indoor air quality and human producitivity and health. Plants improve indoor air quality by filtering air pollutants. Research demonstrates that plants effectively eliminate a range of common indoor air pollutants.

Additionally, humans have a biophilic response to plants. New research is exploring how exposure to plants (or even images of plants) can improve productivity and create a sense of well-being.

Indoor plant benefits include:

  • Improved indoor air quality: indoor plants filter common household air pollutants. With the right plants, indoor plants can reduce up to 87 percent of air pollutants.
  • Improved health: Up to ten percent reduction of rates of asthma, headaches, and respiratory problems.
  • Increased human productivity: Productivity rates can increased by 20 percent in environments with superior air quality.
  • Reduced energy usage: Energy usage can be reduced by 15 percent because less air circulation is required with indoor plants.

Sources: Indoor Plants Can Clean AirUsing Plants to Clean Indoor Air and Reconnecting with Nature through Biophilic Design 


LEED for Homes, U.S. Green Building Council

Green Plants for Green Building


Best Air-filtering Houseplants According to NASA, Treehugger

Houseplants Can Clean Indoor Air, University of Minnesota

Indoor Air Quality, Green

Indoor Plants Can Clean Air, Landscape Online

Plant Care

Reconnecting with Nature through Biophilic Design, The Dirt Blog, American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA)  

Top Houseplants for Improving Indoor Air Quality, Clean Air Gardening

Using Plants to Clean Indoor Air, The Dirt Blog, American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA)  


"How to Grow Fresh Air: 50 House Plants that Purify Your Home or Office," B.C. Wolverton. Penguin, 1998|

"Managing Indoor Air Quality, Fourth Edition," Barney Burroughs and Shirley Hansen. Fairmont Press, 2008

"The Complete Houseplant Survival Manual: Essential Gardening Know-How for Keeping (Not Killing) More Than 160 Indoor Plants," Barbara Pleasant. Storey Publishing, LLC, 2005 

Government Resources

Green Indoor Environments, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Indoor Air Quality, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Residential Composting

According to the Sustainable Sites Initiative, in 2007, approximately 33 million tons of yard waste entered the municipal waste stream, representing 13 percent of total municipal waste in the United States.

Integrated site designs can include comprehensive systems for minimizing household and landscape-related waste. Instead of sending decomposed organic material to the landfill, composting can increase landfill life by diverting organic materials to residential decomposition systems. More than 25 percent of waste disposed in landfills are yard and food waste, which can instead be transformed into productive resources.The process of composting is cost-efficient when compared with conventional ways of remediating contaminated soils.

Composting decomposes organic material in yard and food waste as well as manures to produce a valuable nutrient-rich medium that can be used to grow healthy plants. There are many benefits to composting. Composting enriches soils, reduce CO2 emissions (through garbage transportation), and provides an efficient way of managing household food waste. Beacause composted materials provide such a rich medium for growing plants, composing reduces the need for excess water, fertilizers, and other pesticides for gardens.

There are various types of composting systems, which can be added to backyards or even used indoors.

Source: Wastes – Resource Conservation – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle – Composting, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency


Composting Association of Vermont

New York City Compost Project

Professional Recyclers of Pennsylvania – Pennsylvania’s State Recycling Association

U.S. Composting Council


Composting, Cornell Waste Management Institute, Cornell University

Composting 101 

Guide to Composting, Garden Guide


"The Complete Compost Gardening Guide," Barbara Pleasant and Deborah L. Marin. Storey Publishing, LLC, 2008

"Composting: An Easy Household Guide," Nicky Scott. Chelsea Green Publishing, 2007

Government Resources 

Backyard Composting, Department of Environmental Protection, State of Pennsylvania
Backyard Composting Educational Program, Department of Environmental Protection, State of Pennsylvania

Composting in Your Backyard, Natural Resources Conservation Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture

Curbside Food Waste Collection Pilot Project, District of Namaimo, British Columbia, Canada

Home Composting, California Integrated Waste Management Board

Home Composting Tips: A Guide to Composting Yard and Food Waste, Department of Environmental Protection, State of Massachusetts

Recycling Resources Economic Opportunity Fund Grants Program, Department of Public Health and Environment, Colorado

San Francisco Residential Composting Program, City of San Francisco, California

Wastes – Resource Conservation – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle – Composting, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

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